When most people think of Morocco, they imagine a single-file line of camels crossing the rolling sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, snake charmers hypnotizing cobras in Marrakesh's fortified old quarter, or the 'Blue City' (AKA Chefchaouen) that's constantly featured on Instagram. Rarely though, do people realize how drastically diverse the landscapes of Morocco actually are.
Topography ranges from flat, red granite terrain to snow-capped mountains. From volcanic and barren, to farmer's fields and stripey rolling hills. From cities built into cliffs and Berber villages stacked up against mountainsides to subtropical. There was even a solar power station in Ouarzazate that looked like a place where earthlings might make contact with space aliens.
Let's start at the beginning...
The journey kicked off in Marrakesh. We collected the Fiat Panda at the airport and drove to our accommodation, in the Medina, where nobody should ever drive. EVER! The roads in the Medina were barely wide enough to fit a car, but were still shared with donkey carts, motorcycles, pedestrians, trucks, stray dogs and children (knocking on your windows expecting money). At one point, I had to get out of the car to move a chair and a parked motorcycle so we could fit down the lane. Even the most savvy of drivers would be unnerved trying to navigate through these alleyways. By the time we arrived outside the door of Riad l'Orangeraie (only about a 20-min drive from the airport), we were frazzled. Luckily, the very kind staff took the car off of us and parked it in a secure lot nearby.
Outside the riad was noisy and chaotic, but inside was an oasis of calm. From the courtyard, all we could hear was the lull of the call to prayer in the distance and singing birds.
After a bit of Moroccan hospitality (tea, biscuits and advice), we took to the streets of Marrakesh, for some exploration. The first order of business was to get lost wandering through the souk (market). We dodged mopeds, admired colors, savored scents, bargained for tchotchkes and watched tortoises for sale try to escape (very slowly).
With a little help from Google Maps, we weaved our way through the labyrinth of the souks, to Jemaa el-Fna (the central square).
As the afternoon heat intensified, we decided to pop up to the roof terrace at hotel Les Jardins de la Médina for some refreshing cocktails.
Post-aperitifs, we strolled through Parc Lalla Hasna and watched as the sun set over the minaret of Koutoubia (Marrakesh's biggest mosque).
A short walk further, we arrived at La Mamounia, one Morocco's most elegant hotels, where people like Jennifer Aniston, David Beckham and Winston Churchill have enjoyed stays. Here, we dined at Le Marocain restaurant. The lobster tagine was worth the price.
The loudest birds I have ever heard awoke me the next morning. Nature's alarm clock, I suppose. A lovely breakfast was served on the roof terrace of our riad, where I caught up on international news and chatted to the hotel owner (Cyril) before it was time to move on.
Once we figured out where the car had been parked, the road trip officially began. We escaped the hustle and bustle of Marrakech early in the morning, before things got too busy.
Our day's journey took us through the hairpin bends of the Atlas Mountains. There was a lot of construction and patches of unpaved road. It took about four hours to drive to Ouarzazate, where we stopped for a quick lunch. One speeding ticket was obtained along the way, but it only cost us MAD150 (~£11).
From Ouarzazate, we carried on another two and a quarter hours to Dadès Gorges, which has been carved through the walls of the Atlas Mountains by the Dadès River.
The lush, green vegetation of Dadès Valley contrasted against the crumbling kasbahs and sand-colored mountains, presented a dramatic landscape.
We passed a geological feature known as 'Monkey Fingers.' This rock formation has smoothly eroded over the years to now look a bit like fingers raising from the earth (so they say).
Arriving at our gorgeous hotel, Auberge Chez Pierre, with some sunlight still remaining, provided us the time for a wander through Ait Ouaddar and to have a sundowner before the amazing prix fixe meal at the hotel.
One stroll around the village, one sunset, one delicious dinner and one sleep was all we had time for before we had to decamp. We didn't want to leave this beautiful, tranquil place, but the road was calling. This time, it was onwards to the Sahara Desert.
The drive to Merzouga took four and three-quarter hours, on mostly flat, straight easy roads. We parked at Kasbah Le Berger, where our car was left for the evening. Ali, one of the co-owners of Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, took us dune bashing, in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, to our home for the night, in the Erg Chebbi dunes.
After a few hours of quiet time at our desert palace, we met Casanova, George and Shee Shee (our camels) and hit the dunes, for the first (of two) treks.
Sandy and hungry, we returned, post-sunset, to the glamping site for dinner and some entertainment (which consisted of a drum circle and singing around a campfire). The night's sky was breathtaking! The Sahara has been voted the top place on Earth for viewing spectacular stars.
Bright and early the next morning, we were back up and saddled into our camels for a sunrise trek.
Sunrise in the Sahara was spectacular! There were very few people around and the dunes were awash with a rich, golden light. It was serene and stunning. Plus, I got to watch my camel, Shee Shee, chew his cud for hours, which tickled me endlessly.
Breakfast was served following the trek, but then it was time to move on the next destination.
The journey to Aït Ben-Haddou took seven hours, inclusive of an hour and a half stop for lunch.
Just as we arrived to Aït Ben-Haddou, it started to rain, which was the first and only precipitation we experienced on the whole trip. The rain storm only lasted a few minutes, but provided a terrific sky for photos.
After paying €1 for parking and MAD10 entry, we gained access to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aït Ben-Haddou is a traditional communal habitat made up of a group of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls. To me though, it looked like a life-sized sand castle.
You might recognize this location as it has prominently featured in many Hollywood productions, including Gladiator, Game of Thrones, Babel, and Lawrence of Arabia .
Our hotel for the night, Kasbah Titrit, was only a six-minute drive further along the road from Aït Ben-Haddou. It had all the amenities for modern comfort, with the charm of an old palace.
The final stop on the road trip was Taghazout Bay. It took five and half hours to get there, on the N10. The road was good and very few cars were out until about the last hour.
The temperature dropped substantially by the time we got to the coast, and it became quite cloudy. But that didn't stop us from having some lunch and drinks poolside at the Hyatt Place Taghazout Bay. For dinner, we hit the town, but found it to be pretty sleepy.
From Taghazout Bay, it was about an hour drive to Agadir Al-Massira International Airport. Luckily, we gave ourselves plenty of extra time, as the car return took forever, as did security and passport control.
I loved this trip and all that Morocco had to offer, from its wonderfully chaotic cities and majestic mountains to the serenity of the Sahara Desert and its charming coast.
Upon reflection though, I probably squeezed too much physical mileage into a short amount of time. The funny thing about road trips is that, in some ways, they're the opposite of what a holiday should be. They're not particularly relaxed, they often require early wake-ups and a heightened sense of awareness and you are constantly packing and unpacking as you bounce from one accommodation to another. Yet they provide the ultimate form of freedom, and can be the best way to get under the skin of a country. I would highly recommend road tripping around Morocco and following the same itinerary, but give yourself more than six days to complete it...Or find yourself a magic carpet.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Pack a pen. You must complete a landing card upon arrival, and actually also at departure.
They drive on the right side of the road in Morocco.
When you collect your rental car, point out every scratch, mark and dent, making sure your papers reflect all the blemishes. Take a video as well.
There are many random police checkpoints and speed traps. The police look scary, but are usually quite friendly to tourists.
There doesn't seem to be much sense in how the locals drive. They pull over without any warning. They don't indicate unless they actually aren't turning. They stop in the middle of roundabouts.
We never came across any tolls.
Petrol stations are full service.
There are a lot of hitchhikers.
Children play in the streets and do not have electronic devices. They were all smiles and would wave to us as we drove by.
Do not drink the water. Bottled water only.
Alcoholic beverages were really only served in hotels.
Eat all the tajines!
Hospitality was top-notch at every accommodation where we stayed. We really felt like we were their guests.
All the Moroccans we came across were warmhearted and friendly.
Moroccans do not like to be photographed.
Carry small denominations of dirhams for parking, tipping, etc. Morocco is cash culture, outside of finer hotels and restaurants, and change is often hard to come by.
Learn the art of haggling, to get a good price.
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